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A Reluctant Prophet? The Break-Up of Britain and Scottish Nationalism Today

In advance of this week's series of UK elections, James Foley revisits Tom Nairn's predictions for the break up of the British state. 

3 May 2021

A Reluctant Prophet? The Break-Up of Britain and Scottish Nationalism Today

The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism belongs to that class of books which are so widely referenced that it feels almost unnecessary to read them. For years, it remained out of print or available only through obscure publishing houses. Such obscurity, however, only added to its mystique, and its mocking, Cassandraist title haunted British politics even at the height of “cool Britannia”.

Today, after a decade of austerity, indyref and Brexit, many see Break-Up as the prefigurative text of the United Kingdom’s decade of crisis. In his introduction to the new edition, Anthony Barnett calls it “the most influential book on British politics to be published in the last half century”. The vindication of many of Nairn’s prognoses on the state of the nation have made him into a reluctant prophet, who foresaw Britain’s slide from superpower into decay. Nobody, before or since, has been so sharply effective at piercing the pomposities of the British constitution.

While Break-Up’s title anticipates our times, many of its reference points reflect the fashions of its own. Theoretically, and politically, Nairn gives starring roles to world systems theory and neo-Marxist approaches to uneven development. More implicitly, the book's perspective on the SNP was informed by Nicos Poulantzas’s approach to an emergent new middle class. In the mid-seventies, these were at the cutting edge of critical thinking about state power; today, rather regrettably, they have ceased to be voguish or even to be taught at most universities.

Break-Up’s narrative of British history as one of inexorable decline, weakness and backwardness can also strike the modern reader as anachronistic in the context of its publication history. Despite declinism’s revival since Brexit, the theory jarred with the mood of British triumphalism that prevailed through the post-Thatcherite years. Soon after Break-Up was published, backwardness-as-such had ceased to be deemed the central British problem. Having been a post-War straggler, Britain would be at the vanguard of “regressive modernisation”. Arguably contrary to Nairn’s prophecy, it was this very success that would leave the state susceptible to centrifugal nationalism.

Perhaps confusingly for Nairn’s most enthusiastic audience, much of the book isn’t really about Scotland. Not exactly. The topic dances in and out of various chapters, but even the sections supposedly dedicated to Scotland are broadly sketched. Parochialists are often disappointed to learn that the most famous text in Scottish nationalist history does not linger on the SNP, a topic tackled in detail in only one chapter. And that chapter itself focuses on bursting many Scottish nationalist bubbles, presenting the SNP’s growth as an accidental (if advantageous) product of the seventies oil shock


Far from being an organic development of Scottish political culture, Break-Up broke into a stale consensus with all the raucous energy of the post-1968 revolts. Nairn himself played a central role in importing the continental insurgency to a laggard British Left: as an activist, he was sacked as a lecturer at Hornsey College for supporting a rowdy student occupation; as a theorist, he worked with Perry Anderson to upend a dusty British Marxist consensus in the pages of New Left Review, borrowing from French structuralism, Third World revolutions and above all Antonio Gramsci (Nairn, alongside Hamish Henderson, was pivotal to the Italian’s reception among Britain’s New Left, and Breakup is itself a shining example of applied Gramscianism).To Nairn’s credit, he melded these influences with a very Scottish knack for poking fun at preachiness and pomposity. Break-Up suffers from none of the afflictions of many Anglophone writers who affected the style of 'French Theory'. It remains an almost libellously readable polemic.

Ultimately, Nairn would choose to bring his continental training to bear on events close to home. Since the 1920s, Scotland had been demoted from consigliere of a world-straddling empire to provincial status in a post-colonial state, despondent over its relegation to the status of a “greater Sweden”. The result was a form of dependency, managed through a Labour Party machinery that had emerged from its spiritual origins in Lanarkshire slums into a sort of cartel, bringing jobs and services to the north in exchange for votes.

This pact was already running up against its limits when along came the rudest of intrusions. North Sea oil, “the largest, richest, most aggressive, and most international form of capitalism in the world”, was doing what generations of literary romantics had failed to do: creating a new sense of Scottish self-consciousness. “It could not be imagined, then, that a drop or two of petroleum spirit would bring [the Scotsman] staggering to his feet, demanding the restitution of his lost political kingdom”.

Given Nairn’s reputation as a nationalist critic of Marxism, his account of these times is startlingly materialist. Nationalism is “located not in the folk, nor in the individual's repressed passion for some sort of wholeness or identity, but in the machinery of world political economy”. The irony should be clear: “the most notoriously subjective and ideal of historical phenomena is in fact a by-product of the most brutally and hopelessly material side of the history of the last two centuries.” And what could be more brutally, hopelessly material than those colossal American oil platforms off Scotland’s windswept east coast?

Nairn was no mere armchair socialist when it came to Scottish affairs. Theory and practice have always been interconnected for the author. In 1976, he played a pivotal role in Jim Sillars’ breakaway Scottish Labour Party, which, despite its electoral failure, was a symbolic moment in the movement of a class-conscious intelligentsia away from Labour and ultimately towards the SNP. And while Breakup was perhaps more geared to pessimists of the intellect than to optimists of the will, Nairn’s influence was felt on the SNP’s most gifted political strategists of the left, such as the late Stephen Maxwell.


It is worthwhile recalling that, when Break-Up was published, Nairn was not alone in speaking of a Britain on the brink of meltdown. Indeed, the UK was known as the “sick man of Europe”. But that label had little to do with Scotland, or even the (arguably more pressing) Irish question, and everything to do with workplace militancy. Break-Up was drawn from essays published between 1970 and 1977. In just one of those years, the UK lost 23.9 million strike days; in the year of Break-Up’s publication, 10.1 million (for comparison, in the years of indyref and Brexit that annual figure never rose above 0.3 million). The scale of this industrial action created both a fear and desire for imminent political change: as socialists shouted revolution, sozzled aristocrats plotted coups, fearing the subversive impact of even such moderate Labour leaders as Harold Wilson.

Break-Up was a sideways intrusion into that world of struggles – and for many leading socialist intellectuals, an unwelcome one. Eric Hobsbawm acknowledged Breakup’s “lengthy, impassioned and often brilliant enquiry into the ‘crisis of England’” but concluded that “to the uncommitted eye, the positive socialist effects of a break-up of the United Kingdom, however inevitable, are not at present visible.” Talk of dismantling the state ran not only against internationalist pieties, but also against projects of leftist solidarity embedded in the Labour Party, and most of all against the “us and them” spirit of industrial conflict.

Today we live in a world that more obviously corresponds to Nairn’s viewpoint. Centrifugal nationalism is a far greater existential threat to the British state than any notion of a 1970s style union movement. Nairn’s gambit, to turn Britain’s crisis of the 1970s from a question of industrial militancy into one of geopolitics, constitutions and national identities, may have thus been vindicated, but only after a long and circuitous ironing out of history.

Indeed, the decade after the book’s publication saw the SNP nearly collapse after the failed devolution referendum of 1979, and new bursts of class struggles, culminating in the 1984/5 Miner’s Strike. The likes of Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill spoke of outflanking the Labour Party as the voice of industrial militancy; partly for this reason, they were briefly expelled from the SNP. And when the SNP did re-emerge, it was partly in revolt against Labour’s increasingly middle-class articulation of devolution, allowing the nationalist party to borrow the guise of proletarian insurgency, as they famously had with the Poll Tax revolt, arguably the foundation of the grassroots campaign inthe 2014 referendum campaign.


Social scientists consider Break-Up to be a key text in the nationalist critique of Marxism. That reputation is largely down to the pithy putdown that opens 'The Modern Janus', the book’s closing essay: “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism's great historical failure.” But that turn of phrase risks obscuring a more complex picture. Partly, this is because Nairn’s critique of abstract internationalist platitudes is balanced by an underlying respect (at this stage) for historical materialism. Equally, his critique of British socialism often centres on its Euroscepticism. Nairn’s commitment to the national question was balanced by a vociferous Europhilia.

To those familiar with Scottish nationalism, this might not even appear as a contradiction. Far from being class separatists, today’s SNP leadership is business-like and cosmopolitan, and prides itself on its post-Brexit love affair with the European Union. Some of Scotland’s most important social science innovations have likewise been designed to adapt national projects to an era defined by capitalist globalisation. This is true, for instance, of David McCrone’s “stateless nations” or Neil MacCormick’s “post-sovereign state”.

This line of thought could be said to have its roots in the sections of Breakup, in which Nairn articulates his theory of “neo-nationalism”, employing Scotland as the paradigm case. Neo-nationalism “is analogous to old-style nationalism, above all in its ideology,” he argues. “But, precisely because it starts from a higher level and belongs to a more advanced stage of capitalist evolution – to the age of multinationals and the effective internationalization of capital – its real historical function will be different.”

Nairn correctly identified the nature of the emerging nationalism, which, in an era of footloose corporations, would be more about the pursuit of competitive advantage in transnational spaces, as opposed to the separatist or nativist “retreat” into borders. This is indisputably true of Scottish Nationalism and its parallel European movements in Wales, Catalonia and the Basque Country. All aim to take advantage of the higher-evolved trading spaces of European and global markets. Indeed, Scottish nationalists like to stress that they are leaving a smaller market for a bigger one.

Nairn’s diagnosis did not, however, match the realities of the time. It would take until the mid-eighties for the SNP and the Scottish electorate to adopt a more Europhile profile. Once more, history has vindicated Nairn, but by a clumsy and circuitous path. Nairn also correctly forecasted that the national dimension would not disappear from politics, but rather would thrive under the brutal modernising logic of globalisation. Nationalism, he said, would persist partly as a necessary consequence of capitalist unevenness, and partly as an emotional solace against an alienated world.

But there is another reason that a purely cosmopolitan politics is unlikely to emerge from our current settlement – namely, because democracy was fought for and won at the national level. Sovereign states today thus condense long-buried settlements of social class; by contrast, European Union 'democracy', such as it is, was handed down from on high, its bestowal rendering it unworthy of the name. With hindsight, Nairn pays too little attention to this dimension.

The issue is glanced at when he explores the incorporation of the working class into the state via Labourism, but it never fully materialises as a theme. This perhaps stems from Break-Up’s central methodological provocation, visible from the book’s opening quotation, with Otto Hintze’s claim that external conflicts between states shape their internal constitution. And doubtless, in Britain’s case, this explains much of the state’s development: crudely, from a multinational Empire into a series of botched adaptations to post-colonial realities. However, the bias does have political implications when considering the interaction of class and nation, particularly in recent times, with the development of what Peter Mair called “the non-sovereign people”.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial to consider how much Nairn (together with Perry Anderson) did get right. The 'Nairn-Anderson thesis' on British historical development has been subjected to intensive scrutiny, most recently by one of its own authors, and clearly bears the hallmarks of its time. But parts of the thesis are both innovative and incontrovertible. Britain’s distinctive constitution forms the parameters of its politics: the state is post-colonial, multinational, and unconquered (having won both world wars). As our recent crises have mutated, these constitutional cracks have come to the fore.


However, Britain’s crisis is also formed by its over-adaptation to neoliberal globalisation, which culminated in the brutal austerity package administered by the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg administrations, all representatives of the essentially ‘cosmopolitan’ spirit of the City of London.

In considering how globalisation interacts with the nation state, we must pay equal attention to relationships inside the national container. The ultimate effect of European integration, as Nairn predicted, was not some federalised superstate; nor did it exercise a neutral impact. Instead, the effect of Europe and related forces of globalisation on the British state was to empower the domestic executives (and, incidentally, finance capitalists) at the expense of democratic actors, most especially trade unions and working-class parties. These are the root causes of much of the nationalist backlash, in both its leftist and rightist forms, and of the prevailing mood that has been called the 'populist moment'.

Today’s Scottish nationalists see Europe as a neutral agent of modernisation, but this conceals the intrinsic dilemma of independence from view. The SNP’s problem is that their various commitments to free trade are increasingly irreconcilable. Membership of the European Single Market would, for instance, risk a hard border with England, by far Scotland’s largest trading partner. EU membership would not only entail harsh austerity to achieve deficit targets, but also risk aborting the party’s other globalising commitment, namely, to relinquish a traditional central bank and trade instead with the UK currency. And the list goes on. The SNP’s core support (alongside most Scottish Greens and socialists) has long been sceptical of the demands of post-sovereignty politics, such as membership of NATO.

There remains an outside chance that Nairn could see the breakup of Britain before his ninetieth birthday. With Scottish elections in May, pro-independence parties are predicted to win an overall landslide with demands for a referendum next term. Opinion polls suggest a nation evenly balanced between supporters and opponents of independence.

There are reasons to doubt that an independent Scotland would be a socialist paradise, but that criticism has always been specious (would a Corbyn-led Britain suddenly cease to be hyper-capitalist?). Socialist or not, the breakup of Britain would be a disruption of philosophical as well as political significance. It would challenge the notion that advanced capitalist states are constitutionally settled entities and reignite – for good or ill – a range of national questions not just across Europe, elsewhere in semi-autonomous regions such as Quebec. Even in its worst imaginable form, Scottish independence should be a subject of interest to socialists grappling with a persistent crisis of capitalism that manifests as a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

In grasping this relationship, The Break-Up of Britain remains an indispensable starting point for the conjoined analysis of nationalist politics and capitalist development. Some of its theories have dated badly; others have passed into cliché; but those are not the fates of the truly influential parts of the book. Readers should thus approach with respect but not reverence. Nairn's essays were a product of their time which nonetheless anticipated the conflicts of our own. As a prophetic influence on contemporary British politics, it has few rivals; as a polemical assault on constitutional pretensions, it’s in a league of its own.

And who knows? If the SNP leadership gets its act together, Break-Up may yet become the founding text of a new state.


James Foley is a lecturer and researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland where he conducts research on populism, sovereignty, immigration, and British and European politics. James is also the author (with Peter Ramand) of Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence (Pluto, 2014). He is a member of the editorial board of Conter, and has written for a variety of publications including The Guardian, Open Democracy and The Socialist Register.

This article is part of the Verso Roundtable on The Break-Up of Britain. Follow the link for other articles in the series.